Monday, 12 January 2009

Busy Bees

The second installment of Swarm was on BBC 1 last night, I missed the first one but I highly recommend catching this before it goes off iPlayer.

The best bit was the fire ants making an ant raft to escape flooding. Ants are ridiculous.  They also had bees trying to decide where to make a new home.  The scouter bees come back with reports on possible locations, conveying the message with a dance. All the scouters sell their location and the others decide who to follow. When one of them gets enough support then they all up sticks and move - pretty smart.

On the same theme, I was at a talk recently about consensus decisions in sticklebacks. Apparently they're very reproducible in experimental terms. Again, they have to make a decision, this time about which way to swim. On their own they make the good decision the majority of the time (say 60%) but when they're in a group the almost always get it right. Each fish is pretty stupid, the group is less stupid.

I love problems like this because, while it is a biology problem, it's simple units (fish, ants, bees) that can interact with their peers in some measurable way (well, if you're really clever and patient it's measurable). From this emerges surprising a complex behaviour that didn't exist with the individual - that's what statistical mechanics is all about.

Critical-point post is still delayed, when you're debugging code at work all day it's hard to feel motivated to come home and do the same thing. It's coming though.

UPDATE: Just seen part one, those starlings are badass. They look like drops of liquid, just wait until I get my MD code working and I'm going to be simulating me some birds! (not in the weird science sense, although that would be cool as well).


  1. That's a good analogy.

    Episode 1 of 'Swarm' was cracking. Programs like this makes me proud to be a license payer!

  2. Indeed, I caught the last episode with my Dad just before I left and it was great. I'm gutted that I won't be able to catch the rest of the series since there isn't any iPlayer access over here.

  3. "Each fish is pretty stupid, the group is less stupid."

    The opposite of people!

  4. "The opposite of people!"

    Indeed! Although, coincidentally I just saw this collective chess game story today via Ben Goldacre's delicious feed, amazing stuff.